Matthew Reilly was born in 1974. He is of a generation who grew up on a diet of action blockbuster movies. Reading THE SIX SACRED STONES is like reading a screenplay for one of these movies. The characters careen from one life threatening situation to another at a breakneck speed. There is an incredibly high body count as West’s friends and foes alike succumb to the danger of this latest quest. They die in all manner of grisly fashions. Fortunately the reader is spared too many details.
Character development isn’t really Reilly’s thing. Why waste the words when you can have another life-threatening situation from which Jack can extricate himself? The characters all seem to have the same voice; from the learned elderly academic to Jack’s twelve-year-old daughter – they all talk in exactly the same manner.
If asked to describe THE SIX SACRED STONES, I would say it is Indiana Jones meets the Da Vinci Code on steroids. A fan of action movies looking for something to keep them entertained over the Christmas holidays will probably love THE SIX SACRED STONES. For this ageing baby boomer who prefers her plots much more sedate and with distinctive characters, it was all just a little too exhausting.
REDBACK - Lindy Cameron
Taking a big step away from her Kit O'Malley series, Lindy Cameron has created an excellent thriller. Pacey, peopled with strong female characters; good male characters; a complicated yet disconcertingly believable multi-threaded plot and a hefty dose of subtle humour, REDBACK is definitely going to be amongst my best books of 2007 list.
An elderly British Lord is wined, dined and slaughtered. An American Journalist is following leads for a story on computer war games. The son of a wealthy Saudi family doesn't follow the path his father and uncle have set out for him. A hostage situation in the Pacific; a man dies in Japan; plans for mass destruction are triggered in Texas; a team watches and waits in Pakistan; a politician is shot dead in Sydney; and a young man is seduced in Paris. All of these threads slowly build their own individual tension and the connections start to be revealed.
Redback is a covert, very low profile hostage retrieval team. There is a reason that they were sent to that small Pacific Island and that reason slowly reveals itself as the team become involved in something much bigger than just hostage retrieval. Connections from that island, around the world, into terrorism, organised crime, money and influence reveal themselves as REDBACK builds momentum towards, amongst other things, the SETA conference to be held in Sydney - with major international political figures attending.
REDBACK's many threads are told in a series of, mostly short, chapters which address each plot element individually until the book starts to move towards the final conclusion and a web is revealed. Whilst this does have a feeling of chopping and changing the story elements, it works because each chapter quickly advances the story and then you dart somewhere else for a look at what is going on in that corner. The choppiness gives the whole thing a sense of urgency, compelling the reader to continue on - increasing the sense of foreboding or excitement at what is to come. This is enhanced by the strength of the main character's of each thread. You don't forget who Bryn or Jana are. You know about Scott and how the story of war games is starting to get bigger than he ever expected. You know the team who are quietly (but impatiently) watching events in Pakistan, feeling frustrated by not being allowed to act. You know that Jesse-Jay in Texas is easily manipulated and you know what he's about to do. And for those of us in Australia, we can immediately recognise some of the politicians involved, even with their names changed - and, well, it's not far into REDBACK and you'll be snorting with laughter at the non-too-flattering but brutally accurate portrayal.
REDBACK seems to finish where another book could very well start off - all I can say is - yes please!
THE KILLING HOUR - Paul Cleave
From the Book: They come for me as I sleep. Their pale faces stare at me, their soft voices tell me to wake, to wake. They come to remind me of the night, to remind me of what I have done.
THE KILLING HOUR is Cleave's second book - a totally new direction from THE CLEANER, his first book released (at least in Australia) last year.
And what a direction it takes. Our "hero" Charlie doesn't know what he's done. His clothes are covered in blood, there is a bump on his forehead and there are news reports that two women have been brutally murdered. Charlie knows that Cyris killed them, but nobody else knows that Cyris exists and, let's face it, Charlie's not really sure he does either. He can't think straight as long as the two victims come back to talk to him. He can't think straight as long as the sinister, weird, obsessed Cyris is pursuing him. He can't think straight so he kidnaps his own ex-wife. Charlie really hopes that Jo believes he didn't kill those woman, but dragging her around the countryside, bound and gagged, isn't exactly the best way to win her trust. Meanwhile DI Landry is quite convinced that Charlie is his killer and he's not too fussed about whether he's got enough evidence to charge him or not. He's dying anyway - he's got few months left and he's not about to stuff around when it comes to resolving unfinished business.
THE KILLING HOUR has this marvellous, intimidating, disconcerting sense of weird, creepy, increasing tension. Sure the visions that Charlie has of the victims of the murders have a certain "woo woo" element to them, but it really doesn't matter so much. The sense that you're almost in this story with Charlie - the confusion over whether you're backtracking through the victim's lives; whether the victims are talking to Charlie; whatever is going on with Cyris and Landry - you're just gripped by this creepy, frankly scary, tension. The panic that rises in Charlie and Jo as the book screeches towards it's conclusion infects you, the reader - you're panicked - it's too late to be awake but you're not going to be turning off any lights soon - and besides that you've got to finish this book. And you're left with one question - who is this Paul Cleave and why is he trying to frighten me half to death!
The author's website (http://www.paulcleave.co.nz/) says that his third novel - Cemetery Lake is due for release in 2008. THE CLEANER had me queuing for THE KILLING HOUR. Form an orderly line to the left when CEMETERY LAKE appears.
MAELSTROM - Michael MacConnell
From the Book: Special Agent Sarah Reilly is the daughter of an FBI Legend. Her Father made his reputation hunting down one of America's worst serial killers. Now it's her turn.
Michael MacConnell's debut book MAELSTROM is - paraphrasing his own words - a book designed to appeal to thriller and crime fiction devotees; not falling into the trap of being too similar to other authors in either genre. So I read MAELSTROM with that aim in mind.
It's definitely a thriller style book - there is lots of fast paced action combined with a sinister, lurking vigilante presence - metering out their version of justice to killers - people that the vigilante's think need to be removed from society. The background of this vigilante group is slowly revealed and there's a wealthy man funding the group for what he believes are noble and true reasons. There's a sense of menace and extreme violence in their acts, there's definitely a sense of forcing those killers to face their enemy on more equal ground - giving them some sort of perceived chance - more than they ever gave their victims.
There's also elements of crime fiction in the book in that there is a serial killer with a standard modus operandi - killing violently, seemingly randomly - but there is a pattern that can be discerned and clues to his methods if the investigators dig. There's a copycat killer - muddying the waters of the investigations, threatening the very lives of all the investigation team.
There's also the beautiful, young FBI agent - Sarah - with her mane of red gold hair. She has to live up to the reputation of her father, and to complicate her life even more, the reputation of her lover - a fellow agent - well known and well liked.
Maybe it is a "girl thing" but this constant idea that every female character has got to be physically attractive and that state has to be commented on is getting boring. As is the idea of the menacing vigilante team - working outside, around and above the law by dint of the amount of money that the team "leader" has (can a vigilante team ever just be a bunch of average people who have just had enough - but that's digression.)
Not to say there's not some good things in this book - the quiet menace of the opening segment is truly sobering. The first appearance of the vigilante group is shocking. They seem to appear from nowhere - for a short while the reader is slightly wrong-footed. There's romantic attachment, which, despite a deep feeling of foreboding, was actually handled well - with a slightly different twist which was refreshing. But there are also some things that don't work - the use of Australian terminology by American characters jars, the appearance of the beautiful FBI agent; the motivation, structure and behaviour of a team of vigilantes that seem to be able to commit mass violence and then just disappear was just that bit too far of a credulity stretch.
Whether or not MAELSTROM meets the authors aim is going to be very much to the individual reader's taste.
CHASERS - Lorenzo Carcaterra
According to the bio that came with the book, CHASERS is the 5th book by Lorenzo Carcaterra and a followup to APACHES. The author lives in New York and has written scripts for films and TV shows, including Law and Order. Perhaps that's where the style and content of CHASERS comes from, because this is a very specific type of thriller book, possibly appealing to a particular type of taste.
Set in 1985 in New York, machine-guns are used to murder a target in a Manhattan restaurant, killing innocent bystanders in the process. The brutal slaying propels the surviving members of the Apaches into the investigation of a Colombian drug cartel run by an ex-priest.
The Apaches are a group of controversial ex-cops famous for their take no prisoners, tolerate no garbage style. Original members of the group are joined by some new recruits - a wounded arson investigator, an HIV-positive specialist in forensics and a retired police dog. From the blurb on the book "Now this dedicated team will become Chasers, working multiple cases that will converge into one explosive, all-out New York City street war".
To like CHASERS if might be best if you're a fan of endless dead bodies, assorted gangs facing off against each other (at some point you were left wondering if there was room for anybody else in the city); blood running in the streets; wise-cracking, deeply cynical New York Cops; dialogue that flows through the ear like a staccato dentist drill; vengeance; and rampant gratuitous, almost celebrated, violence.
And boy oh boy is there a lot of everything that's just a bit stomach churning. Spattered gore doesn't begin to explain it, mentioning that there are a lot of dead bodies in this novel doesn't do justice to the dismembering, mayhem and general discarding of human beings left right and centre throughout the book. There's nothing wrong with a high body count in a thriller after all, but somewhere buried under the assorted body parts you'd hope there would be a story being told. This searching for the story under the gore is complicated further by the nature of the dialogue, every single character using the same slick, smart, sassy, street talk (or whatever you'd call it style) that meant that most of the time it was almost impossible to tell which character said what.
I guess ultimately CHASERS could read like a film adaption waiting to happen (although what rating you'd give this level of mayhem beggars the mind), but as a book (for a fan of the occasional over the top thriller) it left a bit to be desired.
PIRATE - Ted Bell
China and France have formed a deadly alliance – they are after the oil in Oman and from there – the world!
On the side of the good guys: intrepid Counter-Terrorist freelancer, British Intelligence Officer and all round English Pukka good chap, Lord Alex Hawke and his band of International merry men including man-mountain American Stokely Jones. Harry Brock, American agent, rescued by Hawke from the clutches of Chinese agents on a boat in the South of France is now part of the team. Legendary New Scotland Yard criminalist Ambrose Congreve needs to prove who murdered French Foreign Minister Luca Bonaparte's father many years before, he also needs to work out why a beautiful Chinese woman is trying to assassinate him. He then wants to make sure that he wins the heart of Lady Diana Mars. NYPD Lieutenant Mariucci wants to know why a couple of aged mobsters have been killed by a rather strange Chinese man and what the Leviathan, a huge ship sitting in NY Harbour, is threatening to do to his city.
On the side of the bad guys: Luca Bonaparte, French Foreign Minister promoted to French President when the Prime Minister and President are assassinated. General Moon and his beautiful twin daughters Jet and Bianca – agents of the Te-Wu – the Chinese Secret Police. Major Tony Tang, General Moon's pretty public face and Hu Xu, assassin, torturer, master of disguise and all round bad guy. Baron von Draxis is the German shipbuilder, owner of a hidden Schloss in the mountains, cruel and vicious lover of Jet Moon, who built Leviathan to be the weapon that the French and Chinese will use to bring the free world to its knees.
And that's just a start – there are more characters charging in and out of PIRATE than extras in a Cecil B. DeMille epic movie. Actually PIRATE is a bit of an epic book – at 514 pages, it's a doorstopper of a thriller that starts out at breakneck speed and doesn't let up even in the epilogue.
PIRATE really shines in a few ways. Great characterisations taking stereotypes and making them so big and wide and glorious that they become a homage. Congreve's stiff upper lip is so stiff it's a wonder he can shave in the mornings. Hawke is the bravest, the truest, the most multi-talented human being in the world. Stokely Jones is the classic huge man, short on words, high on emotion, faithful to the last. Then the action scenes which are over the top yet manage to never slip over into caricature. You can almost imagine all of the scenes actually happening. (Well, maybe not, but it's not so outlandish to be completely farcical.) PIRATE obviously has a political element to it, but at no stage does it feel like it's trying to make a propaganda point. As you'd expect from something as tongue in cheek as PIRATE – the suspected traitor in the midst isn't and somebody switches sides in a poignant change of heart.
PIRATE is a rip-roaring good fun, entertaining roller-coaster thriller. Read it and have a darn good cheer from the sidelines.
BLOWBACK - Brad Thor
Archaeologists make a stunning discovery in a pass high in the French – Italian Alps, but do not live to tell the tale. A year later, Islamic scientists begin dying in seeming accidents or outright assassinations and kidnappings all around the world. And then a US army unit moves into the peaceful, multi-religion village of Asalaam near Mosul in Iraq. They are checking up on some Christian missionaries who haven't been heard of but are startled to find half the village dead from a horrible, flu like disease with some very nasty symptoms. Scott Harvath is a Navy SEAL turned covert counter-terrorism agent who authorities turn to when the connections between these events start to become clear. Harvath, and through him The President of the US, have other problems as well as Democrat Senator Helen Cunningham is on the trail of both of them, trying to prove that there is something else going on with covert operations.
Harvath must go out alone and try to stop a deadly biological weapon from being distributed in America. He must also stop his arch enemy Khalid Sheik Alomari, a high-ranking al-Qaeda operative and ruthless assassin. Alomari is killing Muslim scientists who may have unlocked the key to a devastating super weapon.
There are two broad classifications into which thrillers that I read seem to fit. The totally over the top, almost cartoon like, take your disbelief and hang it in the wardrobe, wild ride type – along the lines of Austin Powers, Colin Forbes', even James Bond to a certain degree. Then there are the psychological, the creepy, the leave the lights on, fasten your seatbelts, things could get hairy here types – in this category Tom Clancy, Len Deighton, John LeCarre, Robert Ludlum, Scott Turow and Frederick Forsyth and many many others. If you get lucky occasionally some of these books can switch between the two categories seamlessly without affecting your overall enjoyment of any of the book. No matter how much I think about BLOWBACK I simply can't decide which category it was aiming for.
It's a great premise – a biological weapon that once threatened the Roman Empire is back with the potential to wipe out huge parts of the world. Perhaps a bit far-fetched in some people's minds, but the premise of the book really appealed to me. I didn't even mind the movie-script like style and could have forgiven some of the frankly utterly outlandish scenes - a supposedly disgraced and in hiding operative not all that hard to spot and certainly in communication with a lot of people; sensationalist paragliding across borders; suddenly producing large numbers of gliders out of nowhere; European countries that didn't seem to mind a heavily armed one man revenge band charging around over their borders; a seemingly never ending stream of money to bribe everyone and a scientist who just suddenly manages to climb a huge ice-covered mountain, having never even attempted anything remotely like this (not even the climbing of a small rock in the backyard) with just the hero to “carry her through”.
Where the book was greatly underwhelming, and I think, the premise poorly served, was that the whole thing was presented in way too black and white a manner with too much predictability and bland characterisation. No doubt about it, many of the the action scenes were exciting and well written, but the existence of the weapon and how it survived was brush stroke and questionable at best, the connection between the weapon and the intra-Muslim faith tensions too self-serving; and the various political conspiracies way too convenient. The whole thing reeked of a one sided partisan cheer squad.
Perhaps your political perspective can affect summation of this book, but I felt that it was a great idea, muddied by a whole lot of convenient nefarious goings on, which contributed little to the thrill and nothing to the action.
DRAGON MOUNTAIN - Daniel Reid
Captain Jack Robertson, ex-Military, Pilot and CIA Spy is kidnapped in-flight, picking up the latest shipment of opium that the CIA is using to fund covert operations in Asia. Discovering that he has been kidnapped by the deliciously over the top one-eyed, betel juice chewing minion of his disgraced comrade ex-Chinese Army officer Ching Wei is disconcerting enough. Ching Wei and Jack go back to 1942, when they were both pilots moving supplies from India into Chungking during the Second Sino-Japanese War. Ching Wei was rubbed out of the Chinese Army because of his drug-smuggling activities, and Jack was involved in the disclosure. But even more disconcerting is that Ching Wei has done very very well from the ongoing drug smuggling and he now does a great sideline in kidnapping white men (mostly) with particular skill sets and keeping them within the confines of his mountain lair to work for him.
DRAGON MOUNTAIN is Ching Wei's mountain stronghold. Deep in the Burmese jungle Dragon Mountain is a fortress outside, a luxurious resort inside. Part of the stronghold is a small Shan Village – the people of this village are part of Ching Wei's power base, providing him with accommodation and support for his white zoo and his stronghold. Ching Wei maintains control over his huge drug empire, his large army of soldiers and servants, and his white “zoo” with a brutal and cruel regime of torture; ritualistic murder; sex; enslavery of the local village and a liberal policy of free distribution of drugs to his minions. Jack must decide if he wants to stay in this bizarre jail paradise or fight for his freedom.
Think Fu-Manchu, aspects of (sans the genetic engineering) The Island of Dr Moreau (which isn't hard because that's the name of one of the character's), James Bond (without the gadgets), the movie Missing In Action and Dr Evil from Austin Powers and you're somewhere in the vicinity of DRAGON MOUNTAIN. That's not to say that DRAGON MOUNTAIN's not just a huge laugh, it's just that it's a totally, utterly and seemingly unashamedly over the top thriller.
DRAGON MOUNTAIN is also not a book for the politically correct amongst us. Probably unsurprisingly for a microcosm community built around drug smuggling, the drug taking is overt and quite clinical – one of the characters, Ching Wei's personal physician has a sideline in trying to find the perfect formula for the best drug known to man, whilst he also provides considered and careful diagnosis on how best to control some of the unpleasant side-effects of constant opium use. And the sex is, well, in your face. Each of the white men is originally billeted with a family in the village that supports DRAGON MOUNTAIN. The “tribal” consensus is that men having sex with wives and daughters is a compliment to the household, so it goes on – all over the place. Of course if one of the white men marries a woman from the village, Ching Wei will build them a house of their own and allow them to live with their family just outside the village confines. But opium does have a bad affect on libido so the sex goes on, outside marriage; outside houses; in gardens; in hammocks; during parties; after parties; and well, everywhere. (Fortunately you are spared most of the gory details of the sex scenes but I did wonder at one point whether you'd actually be able to walk around this village without falling over something or someone – what with the copulating bodies and opium smoking and/or drunken men wandering around, but I digress).
DRAGON MOUNTAIN brings back the good old days of the early thrillers. The baddies are horrendously bad; the goodies are brave and noble and true. Of course in this version the violence and bad behaviour are a darn sight more explicit than Fu Manchu would have appreciated. DRAGON MOUNTAIN is one of those silly, ludicrous, vaguely guilt inducing, Sunday afternoon, why not read something totally over the top sorts of books, and I think I may need help, because I liked it.
THE DEVIL'S PLAYGROUND - Stav Sherez
There is a serial killer in Amsterdam, killing young women in an unspeakable manner. The body of the elderly tramp, found in a rain soaked park, is covered in scarring of all types, so police assume that he is the latest victim, despite the differences in the manner of his death. All Detective Ronald van Hijn has as a clue to the victim's identity is a name and a phone number, written on the inside of the book of poetry found in the tramps pocket.
Jon Reed knew the old man – Jake Colby – because he had recently been overwhelmed with a sense of responsibility for this quiet, homeless man. Some strange impulse had made him invite Jake into his flat, where they had spent time together talking about their backgrounds and their respective fathers.
Summoned to Amsterdam to identify Jake, Jon finds himself drawn to the city; to the investigation into Jake's death; to the Jewish quarter and to Suze, an American student writing her thesis on a little known Jewish artist, killed in Auschwitz. Jake had recently discovered he wasn't who he had thought he was. Jon is aware that he is not who he really is, and that his own father had denied their Jewish history totally. Whilst he is searching for Jake's past and what it was that led to his death, Jon finds himself pulled into a strange twilight world of drugs, alcohol, Jewish History, Nazism and fetishes.
THE DEVIL'S PLAYGROUND is a thriller. The action is almost non-stop and there's lots and lots of sex and drugs; a bit of rock and roll; Nazi's; pornographers; shadowy Internet auction sites; body piercers; cruelty; secret societies and a huge dose of despair. Whilst there is a lot of action and always something new happening, there are also some short reflective moments whilst Jon tries to work out what being Jewish means to him. Van Hijn is another rumpled, slightly maverick Detective. What makes him different and interesting though is that he's actually not bullet-proof, he also sticks with this investigation, despite the powers that be wanting him anywhere else. And he's addicted to cheesecake – the seriously nice sounding variety and some really weird sounding varieties (chilli and chive or liquorice cheesecake anyone?) . Suze is not just your typical love interest or token female, she's got some very challenging behaviours of her own.
THE DEVIL'S PLAYGROUND is dark. Much of it's subject matter is revolting, many of the characters just appalling, the violence is extreme and people behave badly – frequently. The sex and the drug taking are graphic and brutal. The cruelty of the murders is reflected again and again in cruelty at all levels – to each other and animals; historical and current day. But the pace of the book is sharp and the storyline is taut and well written. THE DEVIL'S PLAYGROUND is not a comfortable read, but it is a great thriller.
LET THE RIGHT ONE IN - John Ajvide Lindqvist
Oskar is a timid and lonely little boy, living in a high-rise building in one of those suburbs of Stockholm that was built with great fanfare in the 70's and ignored from then on. Oskar likes to eat sweets, collects murder stories in a scrapbook and fantasises about stabbing the boys in his class that torment and bully him constantly. Oskar is also a resilient and surprisingly self-sufficient little boy. His tormentors beat him, but they certainly aren't defeating him. But lonely little boys tend to watch what is happening around them, and Oskar is intrigued by the people that quietly move into the apartment next door. The blinds are always closed and it's very quiet in there. Nobody else pays a lot of attention to this new family, but later on, the removalist that helped them move in did wonder about the lack of belongings and just one bed.
Oskar knows that Eli doesn't have many friends, he knows that he normally only sees her, late at night in the playground near their building. She smells bad; her hair sometimes has grey streaks in it; and she wears light summer clothing and no shoes even though it's snowing. Eli's quiet, reserved, very formal. Oskar knows she's a bit odd, but he is just too young and too innocent to realise how odd, until much much later.
Soon after Eli moves in, a child's body is found hanging in a tree in a suburb not too far away. When an older man simply disappears one night – the media, the police, and all the residents start wondering if there is a serial killer in the area. But nothing in LET THE RIGHT ONE IN is ever going to be that simple.
LET THE RIGHT ONE IN is labelled a Vampire Love Story, and it is. But if you're a fan of the softer, vampire romances where a simple bite on the neck is the weapon of choice, or where the vampire is the romantic hero who saves the day – then approach this book with caution. LET THE RIGHT ONE IN is part horror story, part romance, part comedy routine and part murder mystery. And it's graphic. Very very graphic. And hypnotic, fascinating and alluring. And weird – it has to be said – very very weird. LET THE RIGHT ONE IN proved to me again that weird isn't always bad, sometimes it's just weird. Obviously to read this book you need an almighty disconnection with reality. This is the story of a vampire and her familiar (for want of a better description) and the violence implicit in a vampire staying alive. There's a certain disconnection in reactions around these events, as despite a number of sightings and some very gruesome events around the fate of the familiar, the neighbourhood seems surprisingly unaware of the vampire in their midst. But by that time, you're so wrapped up in Oskar's ultimate fate that it's a bit immaterial. Certainly you're so wrapped up in the whole Gothic feeling of it, anything anybody does or is doesn't really come to be all that surprising.
With some overtones of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Eli is aware of what she is and what she does. She is not just a blood sucking monster, intent on her own survival and Oskar needs a friend who believes in him and he can trust.
LET THE RIGHT ONE IN dragged me so far out of my comfort zone, I should have packed a lunch, but the journey, despite the gory components, despite the out and out weirdness of the entire book, was not without a particular sort of joy and was most definitely extremely memorable.